Let’s just state the obvious: Santa can’t be everywhere at once. Oh, sure, he has the magic dust and the flying reindeer, but still. That’s why he has helpers. During the holidays, Dallas and every other town becomes Santaville, with guys in big red suits and white beards appearing at shopping malls, big-box stores, holiday festivals. Stands to reason, though, that Real Santa has to be somewhere, right? Luckily for East Dallas, he may well be right here among us.
Neighbor Scott Ward might know something about it. A resident of Bryan Place neighborhood, he certainly looks the part — snowy white beard, twinkle in the eye, a quick and hearty laugh. Add some red velvet, white gloves, and black boots, and you’ve got a ringer for Saint Nick. Every weekend in December, Ward indeed sits on the stately Santa throne right inside the front entrance of Half Price Books on Northwest Highway, ready to chat with children and listen to earnest wish lists.
Flashback 20-plus years ago: Ward, who studied acting and playwriting at the University of Texas, was celebrating the Fourth of July at the home of Sharon Anderson Wright, CEO of Half Price Books. Admitting that “adult beverages might have been involved,” Ward boasted that he “could play anything,” any acting role. Wright’s challenge for him to play Santa was met with Ward’s offhand, “Get a Santa suit and we’ll see.” Wright showed up with a big red suit a few months later, and so was born Santa at the bookstore. This year will be Ward’s 21st year.
The early years, Ward admits, were part of the learning curve. “We had some wild times the first few years,” he says. “Everything was improvised.” For one, Ward learned to modulate his big, booming voice, to bring it down a few notches for wee ones on his lap. He also found it wise, and continues to believe to this day, to never force a child to sit on his lap, even for those photos that eager parents always dreamed of.
So what’s it like to don “The Big Red Suit,” as Ward calls it? “The first time I put it on, I felt something, and I get that every time,” he explains. “I imagine being like a knight putting on his armor, a matador putting on his Suit of Lights, or a cowboy gunfighter getting ready for a showdown. There’s a bit of ritual in putting on the suit. It’s part of the process of gearing up to be Santa.”
Ward says wearing the suit carries with it a huge responsibility. “You have to be ‘on’ the entire time the suit is on,” always alert for children’s reactions. He laughingly recalls an incident years ago when he was doing an outdoor photo shoot with Wright, just at the time that a large party of children came pouring out of a nearby building. They spotted Santa and “went crazy, mobbing me. Wright said, ‘It was like Elvis!’ “ If you happen to be in Half Price Books at the end of Santa’s shift, you might hear the Elvis-esque announcement, “Santa has left the building.”
Part of the Santa experience at the bookstore is posing for photos with Santa, and a surprising number of people bring pets: dogs of every size, cats (for the record, generally not cooperative), snakes, rabbits, iguanas, birds, potbellied pigs, even a chicken once. Ward recalls that he asked, “Is this a special chicken?” No, just a chicken. Ward good-naturedly posed with the ordinary chicken.
Though these photos can often be a comedy of errors — Ward laughs that he tries to play it “broadly” — it can be quite meaningful for some. Ward remembers a boy years ago who came into the store with his beloved pet turtle. The boy did not want to be in the photo himself; he wanted only a photo of Santa and Turtle. Santa instructed the photographer to get in really close, and the boy got his photo.
Santa/Ward has visited with “children of all ages, from 2 weeks to 90 years old.” But for some, it’s so much more than requesting a baby doll or fire truck. Ward shakes his head as he recalls children asking Santa to heal them of serious illness, bring back a parent who has died or reunite divorced parents. “Santa can be an important sounding board for children,” he says. “Sometimes kids just want an adult to listen to them.”
Particularly challenging are the special-needs children who come to see Santa. Ward goes to great lengths to listen attentively and to draw out those who might find interaction difficult. Ward becomes misty as he recalls a girl with Asperger’s he saw last year. He calmly and quietly chatted with her, asking gentle questions, searching for a way to connect with her. She eventually confided her love of holiday music, so Ward asked her to sing her favorite carol. She stood and sang “O Holy Night” in a clear, beautiful voice. The entire bookstore fell silent and listened.
Ward — or is he indeed Real Santa? — recalls the W.C. Fields line “never work with animals or children” and smiles. “And look where I am now,” he says. “This is the greatest role I have ever played. It’s been an unexpected blessing.”
Click to sign up for the Advocate's weekly news digest and be the first to know what’s happening in Lakewood/East Dallas.